Managing is hard. For as much as analytical writers criticize a manager’s poor tactical moves, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that we will never know. Even guessing how many wins a manager is adding or subtracting in the clubhouse is wildly speculative. Sometimes we can get tremendous insight into such a thing and can make a fair judgement on it. Usually all we can do to objectively evaluate a manager is assess his in-game tactics and lineup construction.
Managers generally blend into the background and their presence becomes apparent when they are deemed to make poor in-game tactical decisions. Even the better ones such as Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Buck Showalter make more mistakes than you’d think and it can be magnified on a large scale. Despite managerial failings most of the baseball community would deem suboptimal, Terry Francona used his best reliever in an especially aggressive and effective manner; this in the same week that Showalter made a mistake that will give Orioles fans nightmares throughout the offseason,
Of the 26 times that Francona called Miller from the bullpen during the regular season, he put him in a save situation only three times, one of those being a 5-out save in a 5-4 ballgame against the Twins. In that game, Francona smartly sent out Miller in a high leverage situation in a 1-run game with a lefty, Eddie Rosario, coming up to bat, even though there was only one out in the eighth.
Miller frequently pitched in high leverage situations for Cleveland, regardless of the inning. Going by Tom Tango’s Leverage Index tables, Miller pitched in the eighth inning or sooner nine times in high leverage situations. Francona clearly understands what a powerful weapon Miller is, and that the best way to use that weapon is often to put out fires, regardless of the inning.
Francona first deployed Andrew Miller in Game One at a time nobody was expecting. Despite Tito’s liberal usage of his best reliever, he only brought Miller in prior to the seventh inning once, and that was to get the last out of the sixth inning before pitching the entire seventh on August 4th against the Twins. In Game 1, Francona used Miller to get the last out of the fifth inning.
At a leverage index of 0.57, Miller started off against Brock Holt in a low-leverage situation. Holt is certainly not a big threat, despite the fact that he doubled off Miller. One could argue that Francona should have let Trevor Bauer face Holt and save Miller for the next inning when Mookie Betts would be up next. Batting a below average hitter like Holt second was a baffling decision by John Farrell, and it left a weak spot in the lineup in front of the team’s best hitters. There was nobody on base when Holt came up, so leaving Bauer in to take care of him would have been a perfectly reasonable decision.
That being said, it was a one-run game and Francona wanted to give his team the best possible chance to take an important lead in the series. Miller has a platoon advantage against Holt, giving the team the highest likelihood of not having him get on base ahead of Mookie Betts and David Ortiz. Looking at Miller’s and Holt’s career platoon splits, we can see that they are remarkably small. However, those splits suffer from small sample sizes, especially against lefties. If we were to regress those numbers to the mean, we would surely find that Holt’s true talent has him worse against lefties, and Miller better against lefties.
Ironically, Holt’s double put the game in a high leverage situation with a 1.66 LI. Miller got himself of the jam and went on to pitch two full innings without anymore high leverage situations.
It’s not unreasonable to point to the leverage index numbers and argue that it was unnecessary for Miller to be used so early. I don’t think anybody, including myself, would have criticized Francona for going to another reliever at that point or for letting Bauer finish the inning. The problem with that argument is that it overlooks the fact that the playoffs are different and the quality of competition is better. The Red Sox were by far the best offensive team in baseball through the regular season, and Francona called on Miller with the heart of the lineup coming up next. Cleveland was only up by a run at the time, though they would score another in the bottom of the fifth. Francona recognized that this dangerous Boston lineup was very capable of putting up a lopsided number, especially facing Bauer for the third time through the order, which could potentially leave the team without ever having a lead for Miller to protect.
Cleveland ended up winning by only one run, so it’s entirely possible that Miller preserved a lead that a lesser reliever would have blown. It’s analogous to the aforementioned August 4th game when Miller pitched in the bottom of the sixth inning to protect a two-run lead. Cleveland went on to win that game by seven runs, but neither Francona nor anyone knew how many runs the team would score at the time Francona called upon Miller. Francona went with the information he had at the time and ended up not needing Miller anyway later in the game.
Francona used Miller again in a similar manner in the decisive Game 3. Cleveland led by three runs in the sixth inning and Josh Tomlin was about to face the Red Sox for the third time through the order in a very hitter-friendly park. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that Francona should’ve started the inning with Miller and not let Tomlin face Dustin Pedroia. Tomlin had the platoon advantage, but he faced a really good hitter for the third time that night. Sure enough, Pedroia singled, then Miller came in to face the heart of the lineup. The inherited runner scored, but nobody else did for the two innings that Miller pitched in high leverage situations. Cleveland did not score again and ended up winning by one run. Again, had a lesser reliever pitched instead of Miller, Cleveland could have given up more runs and lost the game. Though we all would have appreciated a Game Four on a baseball-less Wednesday, Cleveland and their fans appreciated the quick result.
Terry Francona realized the value of using his best reliever in high leverage situations, regardless of the inning. Unimaginably to some, Andrew Miller is indeed an adult and a professional who does not spontaneously combust because he didn’t have an assigned role, or because he was brought in mid-inning, or because he was forced to pitch more than one inning. Francona also deserves credit for pulling Bauer one out shy of qualifying for a win. It’s unfortunate that Francona’s reliever usage is so unique, but it could give him the advantage over any manager he faces this postseason. It is also possible that other managers follow suit if Cleveland remains successful using this model.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.